Gold, galaxies and graverobbing

Wednesday 3 March 2004

A range of ancient, gruesome and unusual scientific artefacts will go on show at a public exhibition in St Andrews.

The exhibition – organised by the University’s Museum and Gallery Studies students – will include the life masks of grave-robbers Burke and Hare, who made a profit from providing dead bodies to the anatomy students of 19th century Edinburgh.

The mediaeval medical practices of bloodletting and the use of leeches – as well as early diagnostic techniques, including attempts to identify diseases by inspecting urine – will also be explored.

The exhibition – “Experimental: Changing Beliefs in Alchemy, Anatomy and Astronomy” – will feature samples of the University’s own collections, much of which have never been publicly displayed before.

The exhibits – covering the three “A’s” – will also illustrate the impact of scientific advances on technological processes. For example, visitors can learn how alchemists’ techniques to separate and discover the properties of metals, minerals and plants contributed to the development of modern-day chemical processes, such as distillation.

Meanwhile, visitors can view the Twelve Keys of the mythical Basil Valentine, believed to give clues to the Philosopher’s Stone, an experiment on making ‘gold’, and discover how the chemical process may have sent some alchemists mad from mercury poisoning.

For religious reasons, dissection of the human body has historically had many taboos attached to it, in some eras being reserved as a punishment for criminals. Medical teaching at the University of St Andrews in the late 19th century was supported by wax models of the human body (which will also be displayed), because of the scarcity of actual specimens. However, other institutions were not as scrupulous. In the 1800s, grave-robbers supplied Edinburgh medical schools with corpses in return for money. The infamous Burke and Hare took this a step further, turning to murder to fulfil the demand. Their life masks are displayed.

Astronomy studies the motions and natures of celestial bodies, such as planets, stars and galaxies. The invention and development of scientific instruments has enabled a greater understanding of the Universe to be attained. The exhibition features, among other items, a beautiful and intricate orrery, which demonstrates the relationship of the Earth, sun, moon and planets, and a Gregorian reflecting telescope, invented by James Gregory, Professor of Mathematics at St Andrews University 1668-74. The text leads the visitor through a discussion of medieval astronomy with reference to the influences of the church and universities.

The exhibition has been organised by the graduate students of the University’s Museum and Gallery Studies course, School of Art History. The course, which provides training for future museum professionals, is the only such programme in Scotland and is accredited by the Museums Association and CHNTO (Cultural Heritage National Training Organisation). Through long- standing arrangements, the St Andrews Museum and the Crawford Arts Centre annually host exhibitions prepared by students on the course. The students therefore gain practical experience of all the elements involved in exhibition work, from research, design and display to publicity and the development of education programmes aimed at schools and members of the public of all ages.

Head of the School of Art History, Ian Carradice commented, “We have always included exhibition work in our museum training programme because it gives students the opportunity to develop a wide range of practical skills and also team working skills that will be vital for their future as museum professionals. Each year they are ‘thrown in at the deep end’ but through their enthusiasm and commitment they invariably produce something special”.

Shelley Bates-Wilding, a student on the course said, “The group greatly enjoyed researching this fascinating subject, investigating the wealth of the University’s collections, and interpreting the material from a modern perspective. We hope that the visitors will enjoy the exhibition equally”.

“Experimental: Changing Beliefs in Alchemy, Anatomy and Astronomy” will be held at St Andrews Museum, Kinburn Park, St Andrews from 6 March until 25 April 2004. Admission is free and the museum is open daily from 10.30am to 4pm until 31 March and, thereafter, from 10am to 5pm.

Throughout the period of the exhibition, including the Easter Holidays, there will be a lively programme of lectures for adults and educational activities for children. For more information please contact the St Andrews Museum on 01334 412690.

The other exhibition organised by MGS students, Pressing Forward, is based on contemporary print-making and is held at the Crawford Arts Centre from 6 March until 25 April 2004.



A range of jpeg photographs – including the life mask of William Burke, wax model of dissected human hand and illustration of an “exploding’ dissection¿ – are available from Claire Grainger – telephone 01334 462530/07730 415 105.

Issued by Beattie Media On behalf of the University of St Andrews For more information, please contact Contact Claire Grainger – 01334 462530, 07730 415 015 or [email protected] Ref: press releases/exhibition View the latest University news at

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